Practice self-compassion. Sometimes negative upbringing or other negative life events can predispose people to being self-critical. The worst critic can become yourself. This critical stance can not only rob you of happiness but also get in the way of success. Try to practice self-compassion by being as kind to yourself as you would to a loved one.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Suzanna Chen. Dr. Chen is an MD psychiatrist and founder of a private boutique practice called Suzanna Chen MD. Her practice is located in Manhattan and serves to improve the mental health of women in New York City. She also has a passion for decreasing mental health stigma in all communities, empowering young women, and utilizing her Instagram @doctorsuzanna in order to normalize therapy and mental health treatment.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
When I was young I liked to approach things with curiosity and openness. I liked to draw and create but I also liked to help others and science. I considered either being an artist or a doctor. Now, I feel like I get to be both. There is definitely an art form to psychiatry. The way you approach your clients and the way you tailor therapy is not only dependent on who you are but also dependent on who the client is. There is something immensely powerful about giving space to people’s joys, fears, struggles and triumphs.
I have always loved the human narrative. Even during my free time I watch documentaries on people’s life stories and experiences. It is truly amazing how resilient and intricate people are. I actually have the best job I could imagine for myself, I get to not only bear witness to their stories but also make a positive change in their journey. This is an immense privilege.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This story speaks to the need for us to overcome our own anxieties and limiting beliefs.
In medical school I went to Japan for two weeks to work with doctors there and observe the commonalities and differences in their health system compared to ours. Of course, the big commonality I noticed in mental health treatment was the societal stigma. This is also the case in Ukraine and many other countries. Given the rate of mental health illness, suicide, and overall just mental health struggles that many people face on a daily basis I felt like something more has to be done to decrease the stigma that may be preventing so many from getting the support they need.
While I was still in residency I knew that I wanted to start working on not only making a difference to my individual patients but also making a difference nationally and globally. I got involved in the American Psychiatric Association and joined the United Nations committee of the APA. When I discussed my interests with the head of this committee, a United Nations special advisor, Dr. Vivian Pender she told me that she would support me in presenting at the United Nations and all I needed to do is to reach out to leaders in the field and invite them to be a part of my group. Initially I assumed that these experts and leaders would not respond to a resident contacting them and asking them to join her group of presenters. To my surprise, not only did they respond but they also showed a lot of interest and I was able to form the group and present with the help of Dr. Pender’s mentorship. I was extremely thankful to Dr. Pender for encouraging me to reach out to professionals who were senior to me. Her belief in me helped me believe in myself.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Long time ago during medical school, it was my first overnight surgery rotation shift and a patient came in with minor cuts on the forehead. The surgery resident told me to get a “chux” (a disposable underpad) and place it under the patients head. I had never used one before and didn’t even know what a “chux” was. When I grabbed it out of the drawer it was wrapped up like a pillow in a rectangular shape. I wanted to make sure the patient was comfortable and I put it just the way it was under the patient’s head, still wrapped up in the packaging. The resident stared at me with a quizzical look and asked what I was doing. I told him that I put it under the patient’s head since that’s what he told me to do. The patient defended me and said that it felt very comfortable. Then the resident proceeded to take it out from under the patient’s head and to my surprise unravel it into a flat sheet and then put it under the patient’s head. He said that it’s not a pillow and is supposed to be used to soak up any fluids during suturing. It wasn’t a big mistake but certainly made the resident laugh a lot. I quickly learned that it’s better to clarify than assume.
I also learned that we have our own strengths that may sometimes be seen as weaknesses by others, but end up making us good at the job we choose. Others have their own strengths that really fit well with their jobs, and those can be very different than our strengths. Besides wanting to make sure I meticulously sutured the cuts well, I also wanted to make sure the patient felt comfortable and cared for during a difficult situation. This instinct led me to provide kind words and what I thought was a comfortable pillow to try to make this difficult trip to the hospital more bearable. There was not much room for that in certain specialties but that’s okay since I chose one that fit well with my strengths. Thus it is important to know your strengths and choose a career that not only takes advantage of those specific strengths but also brings meaning and joy.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The most enduring support I have received has been from my grandmother. She has always inspired me to put in the hard work and do what is right by people. Her life story keeps things in perspective for me. She grew up very poor and at a very difficult time. She didn’t have paper for school so she would take notes on the margins of newspapers she found. The country was going through bouts of starvation periods and there were times she didn’t have much to eat. Through all of this she continued to study and continued to work hard. She passed down these tenets to me and supported whatever I chose to do.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Burnout and moral injury rates in medical professions seem to be pretty high. There’s a lot of possible reasons for that, some are systemic issues that the individual professional may not have any or little power to change. While hopefully there’s some movement to change those systemic issues, it may be helpful for the individual to focus on what they can control in the meantime.
What is in our control is what we do and how we react. Some medical professionals have difficulty taking care of themselves as they believe that going to their own medical appointments, spending time with family and friends, engaging in positive social activities, and keeping healthy sleeping and eating habits may interfere with their work. Although these are difficult to maintain due to some work schedules, the guilt that the doctor feels may get in the way of these even on days when it is possible to do them. However, if we feel burned out and overwhelmed we have difficulty not only taking care of ourselves but also others. If the person is overcome by exhaustion, cynicism, contempt and overall loss of purpose then there might be a higher likelihood that patient care will suffer as well. Thus it is important to take care of ourselves physically and mentally.
It is also important to choose what serves you positively instead of going by expectations and pressures. This may include passing on a higher salary doing something that may drive you to burnout. Keeping boundaries is also important since it is easy for high achievers to try to do everything and end up being overwhelmed.
Of course, if the work environment is malignant then it’s important to recognize that. It is important to know that there are options and jobs can be changed or hours could possibly be changed. Sometimes it is better to make that change rather than stick with something that destroys our mental health and overall wellbeing.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Sometimes leaders may become disconnected from the daily work lives of their employees and not realize what kind of challenges and struggles those employees have to face. It is important to find out from the employees and see how your decisions will affect them. It is like the butterfly effect, one small change will create a huge difference.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
Yes, mental wellness can always be worked on even in those who are doing pretty well. If someone exercises and achieves good fitness it doesn’t mean they should then just stop all exercising.
1. Find your tribe. Social interaction and support can be such an important aspect of human life. This can come in all kinds of different forms; it can be family, friends, coworkers, recreational groups, and communities. Even if it is just one close person, as long as you have someone you feel safe being open with and feel understood. Even during a stressful weekday spending time after work with someone who makes you laugh can be very relieving.
2. Practice self-compassion. Sometimes negative upbringing or other negative life events can predispose people to being self-critical. The worst critic can become yourself. This critical stance can not only rob you of happiness but also get in the way of success. Try to practice self-compassion by being as kind to yourself as you would to a loved one.
3. Evaluate which choices don’t serve your happiness and success. Some people can get stuck in negative patterns that repeat and continue negatively affecting their lives. It is important to look at these openly with compassion and honesty. If you have difficulties with that you can get support from a therapist that can help guide you.
4. Find something that brings meaning. The quote “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” by Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us how powerful this can be. There are a lot of difficulties that can happen in life but humans can also be incredibly resilient. What or who the person finds meaning in is specific to that individual. Through exploration and reflection that person can figure out what is the thing or person that brings the most meaning to them and how to prioritize that.
5. The little things can make a big difference. Every week or even every day the little things that we do can add up. Upholding good sleep hygiene, having a calming and uplifting morning routine, taking breaks, practicing mindfulness, having a healthy lunch, getting some physical activity in, and doing something fun, if worked on continuously can help maintain mental wellness every day.
Disclaimer; this is meant for informational purposes only and is not meant to be medical advice. Please speak to a mental health professional near you in all matters relating to your personal health.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
This is actually a very important transition. Some people may assume they will only be happy about retirement but there’s actually many people that have a hard time with such a huge change in their lives. Finding something new and meaningful to do every day instead of work can be hard. This can require reflection about what you like to do, what brings meaning to you, and what can be reasonable given the abilities and physical health status at this time. It can be important to really explore how to let go of the identity of being a worker and transition that to a new identity as a grandparent, as a volunteer, as a gardner, or some other mix of things that bring meaning and joy after retirement.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Per some emerging surveys Generation Z may be particularly lonely, and overall the current teen and pre-teen population may be reporting more mental health concerns. The research on technology is quite mixed actually and thus it’s not completely clear yet whether technology is the big culprit. There’s also many other possible stressors that young people these days are facing. It may be that the new generation is particularly vulnerable to anxiety over news about economic, political and environmental issues and they have a lot of exposure to the news given easier access. On the bright side it may mean that the new generation is very aware and thoughtful about what is going on and what needs to be improved, but on the other side after a while negative news creates a lot of stress that can become overwhelming and counterproductive to mental health. Thus it can be helpful to create a balance between being informed and avoiding too much exposure to negative news. Some people may find it helpful to turn off phone notifications for news stories.
Reported loneliness is still prevalent despite the highly connected world of technology. It’s unclear whether this is because people aren’t truly connecting on a deep level or because there is a perception that we shouldn’t be alone with ourselves sometimes and should be connected at all times. Sometimes people do truly feel lonely even if surrounded by others because it can be hard to find meaningful connections. It can take some time and work. Often, you won’t find it sitting at home. It is important to get out there and look for them and take those steps to nurture them as well.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is a book about his experience as a Holocaust survivor. This book brings up an interesting point about the importance of meaning. During the difficult times it has been helpful to stay grounded and remind myself of how meaningful the work I do is.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to set up a conversation series to help with decreasing mental health stigma and also bringing hope to people. I was inspired by going to a talk about creativity in literature and hearing Lev Grossman, the author of The Magicians, speak about the difficulties in his career and how he overcame them. To hear someone successful be open and honest about their own imperfections made me realize that more people would probably benefit from hearing these personal narratives.
I often feel inspired and somehow supported by hearing personal stories of resilience. I find that it can be so refreshing to hear the realities of the struggles and not just the glories of their successes. It can remind us that we are all human and that we are not the only ones struggling. I would like this conversation serious to involve a variety of people sharing with an audience their own personal stories of life struggles, of resilience, of sadness and happiness. I would hope this lets others know that they aren’t alone and that there’s always hope.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“We repeat what we don’t repair.” by Christine Langley-Obaugh reminds us that ignoring our negative patterns doesn’t serve us because they don’t just disappear until we heal them.
Early on in my career, I said yes to too many things and ended up sometimes overwhelming my schedule. The most humorous part of that was that it was all me, I was the one that continued to add things to my schedule even when it was already a lot. Thankfully I learned that this wasn’t a useful pattern and that not only could I do better at the things I already had on my schedule if I didn’t add too many things I could also do the new things I wanted to at a later time. When I started to prioritize my self-care I ended up doing better for myself and for others.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
You can find me on Instagram and Facebook, or my website at suzannachenmd.com. Feel free to follow me on instagram @doctorsuzanna for some more information on becoming a doctor in general, becoming a psychiatrist, and decreasing mental health stigma.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!